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Waiting For The Electrician Or Someone Like Him


1968 - Waiting for the Electrician or Someone like him - Columbia CS 9518

From RollingStone:

Philip Austin, Peter Bergman, David Casman, and Philip Procter. Why are these four refugees from broadcasting school laughing? Probably because they've done something that nobody has ever done before they've conquered the comedy record syndrome. Also probably because they're are funniest team in America today, combining elements of W. C. Fields, James Joyce, Lord Buckley, contemporary television and Thirties radio, scrambling it all up in a collective consciousness that defies description, and then spewing it out in a free-form half-hour epic presentation of sheer insanity.

There are three of these epics on these two records, as well as three shorter ones, and believe me, trying to write a coherent review of them is no easy task. Why? Well, here's sort of a scenario for "Waiting for the Electrician": The side opens with a language record teaching Turkish, including the phrase "May I see your passport, please?" to which another voice, belonging to the main character, answers "Certainly." There is a conversation between the customs official and the main character concerning sending a telegram, checking the baggage ("Is this your bar of soap?" "I suppose so." "So do we..."), finding a hotel, etc.

The main character gets into an elevator, has a conversation with an English-speaking passenger and his "Russian"-speaking friends, and he gets out of the elevator in a place where a testimonial for "generated, veneered" Lord Kitchener stands to speak and dies of a coughing fit. Someone mentions that it is no longer safe there, so they go through a door into an arena where the Berlin Ice Capades are being held. There, a dwarf on ice skates named Johnny shoots it out with the ringmaster and...

Well, that's about the first five minutes, anyway. Later on, the main character goes in and out of jail, appears on a television program called Beat the Reaper, where he is shot up with a disease and has ten seconds to identify it and Beat the Reaper, escapes through a plague-infested city, crosses the border, crawling on hands and knees, and meets a man who gives him his next three words of Turkish.

On paper, of course, it's all very two-dimensional and dull, but that's because with the Firesign Theatre, to paraphrase Little Richard, it ain't what they do, it's the way how they do it.

Comedy records are a very fragile art form at best. You buy one, play it once, and hear this guy standing before an audience in some nightclub telling some jokes or doing a routine. If the nightclub audience is really sozzled maybe they laugh too much, or maybe there's some guy out there going HAW HAW at all the wrong places, or maybe the comedian, like most good comedians, has a very important visual presence, and the audience laughs at things you can't see. At any rate, I'll bet the average Bill Cosby record really starts to wear thin on most people (to the point where any laughter is more automatic than spontaneous) after three or four playings.

The Firesign Theatre leans heavily on sound effects, using stereo to create a sense of space just like these old Sports Cars in Hi-Fi Stereo records, and using over dubbing and electronic effects to create a galaxy of character voices and background sounds. Layer upon layer of dialog and sound effects are present throughout most of the productions. One listen is hardly enough to begin to grasp what is going on, and six or seven tries later you're still unearthing juicy tidbits. Their timing is dynamite, their dialog kaleidoscopic, and their satire is, so to speak, acidic.

The two records are not, however, uniformly brilliant/incredible/mindblowing/classic. At their worst they are merely very good. At their best, one begins to run out of hyperbole to describe them. The first record, Waiting for the Electrician, was released well over a year ago, and not too many people picked up on it. The first side has three short skits, all connected by electronic sound. "Temporarily Humboldt County" is a short history of the American Indian's search for the True White Brother who has been promised to him by the Great Spirit. It gets a wee bit preachy at some points, but still throws darts that sting when they hit.

One little scene that has alienated scores of people, I'm sure, is the one where a soft voice says to an Indian "There's a lot of young people in this country who really dig where the Indian's at, and pretty soon we're all gonna be out here livin' on the reservation, doin' all the simple beautiful things you Indians do ... Got any peyote?" "W. C. Fields Forever" takes a different tack on the same theme and presents us with a typical day on a hippie dude ranch, and you can hear such fascinating things as someone knocking on a door made of pure oleomargarine and a horse turning into an elephant before your very ears.

"Le Trente-Huit Cunegonde" is marred by perhaps trying to do too much in too little time, concentrating on a whole world in the hands of stoned-out people, with stoned-out cops, stoned-out armies, presidents, etc. It's grim and funny at the same time, but it is a bit overambitious. And then there's "Waiting for the Electrician," a masterpiece of paranoia which must be heard to be appreciated fully, since as you can well see, I have considerable difficulty in trying to describe it.



 The Firesign Theatre's debut album is quite impressive. It's a tad more conventional than subsequent releases, where the surrealist side of the quartet would flower, but it is as funny as the best of their material. The record crackles with the excitement that occurs when four novices realize that they're onto something completely new and innovative. The performances are some of the strongest they've ever commited to record, as if they figured this thing just might be a one-shot deal, their 15 min. of fame.

Side one presents three clean, clear-eyed satirical pieces. All are complete and whole in and of themselves; no cross-referencing or "runners" occur from cut to cut. The first deals with the past - primarily the sad fate met by the Native Americans at the hands of the Conquistadors and European pioneers. The second finds us in the present, smack dab in the middle of a hippie commune, complete with gurus, love children, and a psychedelic Lone Ranger. The third casts an eye toward the future, where everyone (from goverment on down) has collectively dropped out, tuned in, and turned on. All three pieces are very straightforward in the messages they're trying to relate, the last two being especially critical of the then-new "flower power" which was fast dividing generations. Never again did a Firesign album deal so blatantly with the notion of psychedelics and hippies - later releases would feature similar character types and drug themes would recur, but never has that particular aspect of the culture been taken so head-on.

Side two consists of the titular piece, the group's first attempt at a long-form piece. It is the stream-of-consciousness journey of a man truing to get out of some nameless, hostile Eastern-European country. Along the way, he encounters secret agents, political prisoners, and govermental goons of all types. Because this is the first time they undertook such an extended piece, they get an "A" for effort. However, the track is rather hit-or-miss, though it does feature some hysterical lines and one of their all-time best game show parodies, "Beat the Reaper!" The chief problem seems to be that the protagonist, "P (Austin)," is not clearly defined. He's an anonymous, somewhat confused voice whose motivations and ultimate destination remain obscure. Their next attempt at a long piece featuring a character going on a journey (on "How Can You Be...") would prove to be more successful, as that character's goals were evident from the beginning (even if it the goal is just "to get away from it all").

Even on this first album, it's clear that the four see the importance of taking the listener on a journey in order to engage them. All of their most succesful albums have this in common, whether it be the car ride of "How Can You Be...," the TV channel surfing of "Don't Crush That Dwarf," the past-present-future trek of "Everything You Know Is Wrong," or the jaunt at the Future Fair in "I Think We're All Bozos On This Bus." This record is basically the Firesign Theatre's blueprint for all future work... and an incredibly strong one, at that!

-- Phil Buchbinder